The team that died of hate; In a Northern Ireland divided by sectarianism, Star of the Sea was a ray of hope - a football side where religion didn't count. But the ideal could not survive the Troubles.
Raymond McChord sits in the corner of one of the pubs, the Morning Star, staring
at a photograph from the winter of 1969. "I'll tell you this," he says, running his fingers across the print. "It makes the hairs on the back of ma neck stand up."
McChord is, in the words of his fellow drinkers, "a tough nut" who has spent half his life standing up to terrorists.
They've tried to kill him three times. On the last occasion, the gunman's weapon jammed. In the end, they kicked his 22-year-old son Raymond to death and dumped his body in the street.
"I know the men who did it and the b****** who gave the order," he says, naming one of Northern Ireland's most notorious Loyalist gangsters. "I went to his house after he had Raymond killed and asked him outside to fight. The coward called the cops."
Proximity to death has made McChord serene. It takes something special to disturb his calm exterior, but the 30-year-old photograph on the previous page is special.
It shows the Star of the Sea, a team from north Belfast that dominated juvenile football in the late 1960s, not just in the city but across Northern Ireland.
All-conquering on the field maybe, but what made the club special was its player recruitment policy: anyone could get a game, Catholic, Protestant or Mormon (and Northern Ireland had a few back then). In a city torn apart by religious civil war, this was unique.
"We were the best," says McChord, reeling off the players' names. "Charles Toland, Protestant, good player, tough nut. Terry Nichol, Protestant, joined the UVF, did five years in jail for armed robbery. Dessie Black, the goalkeeper, good lad Dessie.
"Paddy Davison, a Catholic. His brother was shot dead in the street by Protestant gunmen - he's never held it against them. Me, Protestant. Tommy O'Neil, he was the manager's favourite.
"Willie Caldwell, Protestant. Joe McCourt, Catholic. Michael Atcheson, a Protestant, he joined the UVF. Michael got 17 years for bombing a pub, if I remember rightly."
Actually, Atcheson was sentenced to 18 years in 1978 for membership of a terrorist organisation and for his role in the shooting of three men.
He is sitting in the front row of the picture, his serious face in stark contrast to the playful smirk of the boy next to him, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the troubled history of Northern Ireland.
On May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands, serving 10 years for terrorist offences, became the first of 10 IRA prisoners to starve himself to death. He'd been on hunger strike for 66 days, during which time he was elected to parliament.
Over the years, he has been portrayed by Irish Republicans as a warrior poet and a leader of men, but back in 1969, he was, as Michael Atcheson now recalls, "just plain Bobby Sands, the club's left back - not a leader, nor a poet. He wasn't seen as a particularly articulate young person, nor a particularly good footballer".
Within a couple of years of that photograph being taken, Atcheson had joined the UVF, Sands was carrying out robberies for the IRA and the ideal of Star of the Sea had been destroyed.
After 30 years of the Troubles - and 3600 deaths - the club's unique history is remembered only by Belfast's soccer aficionados and the few who wore the team colours.
But next year the Star of the Sea story will be brought to a global audience.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber is writing a musical entitled The Beautiful Game. He got the idea when he met comedian and author Ben Elton at a party in London.
The creator of Sunset Boulevard and Cats says: "Ben has written a beautiful story. It deals with the issues of bigotry and hatred and what religion can stir up."
Given Lloyd-Webber's proclivities for middle-of-the-road mush and the gross over-simplification of complex politics (see Evita), others aren't so sure.
"An Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical about Star of the Sea?" says a sceptical Raymond McChord. "You're jokin', aren't you?"
The journey from the centre of Belfast towards Rathcoole, a municipal housing estate on the city's northern outskirts, provides a crash course in the Troubles.
Walls are splattered with acronyms and crude murals celebrating victories and martyrs of the city's terrorist organisations, from the infamous INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) to the obscure Cloughfern Young Conquerors.
Gradually, the green, white and gold that signifies Republican areas disappears until all that is left is the red, white and blue of Protestantism.
Built in the late 1950s, the estate was originally mixed, Protestant and Catholic families living side by side. Today Rathcoole is a Protestant ghetto. Grandiose Loyalist flags hang above the doors of terraced homes and paving stones are painted red, white and blue.
In the window of the local chip shop, a message from an outlawed terrorist gang to the local community is openly displayed alongside the items for sale and flats for rent notices. Some of the city's most notorious Loyalist terrorists live on the estate.
Star of the Sea's headquarters is a 15-minute walk from Rathcoole. These days, it's known as an exclusively Catholic team, but 30 years ago it represented something that seems inconceivable now - a defiantly non-sectarian team by order of a remarkable man.
Liam Conlon was a doctor in the city's aircraft factory. He took over the running of the team in the late 1960s after it was merged with another local team, Stella Maris (named after the Virgin Mary).
He was an imposing man, physically and mentally, whose only interest appeared to be in building the best young football team in Ireland.
As soon as he took over, word travelled around the estates that everyone was welcome at Star of the Sea. Conlon didn't care if you were Protestant or Catholic, as long as you could kick a ball.
Notices were put up around the clubhouse banning all talk of religion and the wearing of sectarian emblems.
Meanwhile, beyond the club's tiny headquarters, Belfast was beginning to fester with religious hatred. McChord recalls: "Lots of people I knew didn't join Star of the Sea because they were Protestant and the club was seen as Catholic. But we didn't care what they thought, or what was going on outside the club.
"My father was in every Protestant organisation going - the Orange Order, the Loyalist Apprentice Boys - but I didn't care.
"As far as I was concerned, Star of the Sea had the best facilities, the best changing rooms and the best football team and that's why I joined them."
Fortunately for Conlon, there were others who felt the same way. Michael Atcheson's family had recently moved into a mixed area close to Star of the Sea's clubhouse.
Atcheson says: "I was the new boy in the area and I was meeting new friends, most of whom were Catholic. At 15, you weren't really that aware of what was going on in Northern Ireland. We just went to the club to play football.
"Although the majority of the players were Catholic, it was a very welcoming place. In fact, the Catholic lads were very protective of us.
"I remember one time we went to Donegal to play a game. We were in a pub and the other team started singing Republican songs. The Catholic lads from the Star of the Sea asked them to be quiet because there were Protestants in the company.
"The lads from Donegal refused to stop singing and a huge fight started."
McChord, too, has countless stories about the Star of the Sea lads taking on all-comers, regardless of their religion.
He says: "After one game against a team from a Catholic area, I remember Bobby Sands having one guy by the neck and hitting him over the head with his football boot ..."
He laughs at the memory of the Catholic Republican martyr fighting Catholics for the non-sectarian cause of Star of the Sea.
Other players don't have such fond memories. Sammy Blair, a self-confessed Loyalist who was shot five times by the IRA in 1974, occasionally played on the team with McChord, Atcheson and Sands. He was also dating Sands' sister, Marcella, at that time.
Blair recalls: "I joined the club only because my mates were in it, but to be honest, I didn't like Liam Conlon. He was a bully."
He does, though, concede admiration for Conlon's stance on sectarianism saying: "When I went to the club for the first time, Dr Conlon asked me what foot I kicked with. I thought he was asking me what religion I was and I told him I was a Protestant.
"He laughed and said 'no, really, what foot do you kick with, left or right?'."
Conlon died in July 1994. If there is disagreement about his methods of running the club, then there is no debate about his success on the field.
At its peak, Star of the Sea was beaten only twice in two years. The club won countless trophies, including an All-Ireland Boy's Club title. A number of its players travelled to England for trials with professional soccer teams.
Tommy O'Neil, acknowledged as the club's most skilful player, went to Wolves, Raymond McChord spent six weeks at Manchester United - then, as now, European champions.
Without a trace of regret, McChord says: "I got homesick in Manchester. I was missing my family. All I wanted to do was play for Star of the Sea." But McChord came home to a different Belfast, where simmering sectarian hatred had exploded into violence.
What began as civil rights marches by Catholics in the city of Derry - shortly to be the scene of the notorious Bloody Sunday incident - ended in street battles between the two communities.
Within days, the violence of Derry had spread across Northern Ireland. Young men such as Atcheson and Sands were drawn into the war.
Atcheson recalls: "As far as I was concerned, I was fighting for my country. It was either us or them."
Sands experienced his first taste of the growing swell of revolt in 1968 after arriving at work as an apprentice coach builder to find his fellow colleagues cleaning their guns. They threatened to kill him if he didn't leave. A note in his lunchbox reinforced the threat.
He was just 14, but it illustrated the gulf between Protestant and Catholic that football could not bridge.
Sands joined the IRA four years later and was arrested the same year for possession of guns. After that, he was in and out of prison and another arrest for arms possession in 1977 landed him a 14-year sentence. After his death in Belfast's notorious Maze prison, 100,000 people attended his funeral.
Today Michael Atcheson is a reformed man. He educated himself in jail, getting a university degree. He has a ready knowledge of the facts and figures of the Irish Troubles.
He says: "Twenty-five per cent of all those who were killed in Northern Ireland in the last 30 years were killed in north Belfast.
"Of the 15 official peace lines, 11 are in north Belfast. This area took the brunt of the violence."
There were bombings and killings in the streets that surrounded the Star of the Sea. In Rathcoole, Catholics were burned out of their homes to make way for Protestants.
The Sands family left for the Catholic ghetto of Twinbrook, in west Belfast, after their house was petrol-bombed. Sammy Blair's love affair with Bobby's sister ended immediately.
Blair says: "I couldn't go and see her in the new place. Seriously, I would have been killed if they'd found out I was Protestant."
Atcheson adds: "Some nights, when you were at training, you could hear the bombs going off in the city centre.
"Star of the Sea still had a reputation as a Catholic club, so when it was known you played for them, you came under a fair bit of pressure to leave. A couple of times when I left training, I got chased by Catholics for being a Protestant.
"Other times, I got chased by Protestants for playing football for a Catholic club. People didn't understand what Star of the Sea was doing."
Inevitably, Dr Liam Conlon's ideal of a non-sectarian soccer club was swept away by the tide of religious hatred, though there is debate about what caused the final split. Undoubtedly, the club's players came under enormous pressure from within their own communities to stop mixing with lads of other religions but, according to Sammy Blair, the team wasn't immune to the bitterness infecting the wider community.
He says: "Protestants like myself started to drift away in the early 1970s because we were starting to get hassle from some of the Catholic players. I was called a dirty Orange b****** a number of times by my so-called teammates.
"In the end, me and my mate - a Catholic lad who hated what was happening - left. I joined a Protestant team."
Michael Atcheson left, too, though he insists that the club did everything it could to make Protestants feel welcome.
He says: "I regret to say I took the easy way out. It wasn't worth the hassle because Star of the Sea was starting to be seen as a Catholic team. Looking back, it was a remarkable achievement to keep it going for as long as they did."
Eventually, the team of 1969 all drifted away, some of them into full-time employment, such as Denis Sweeney, who became a doctor treating victims of violence.
Others, such as George Hussey, emigrated to escape the violence.
Then there were Sands and Terry Nichol and Michael Atcheson, who were all in jail for terrorist offences before the new decade had ended.
Of all the team's Protestant players, only Raymond McChord remained committed to the Star of the Sea cause.
He still is: "All I wanted to do was play football.
"I wish the other lads had done the same because when we were together as a unit we were a great bunch of lads.
"When the lads started to leave, they were easily influenced by the bigots."
He shakes his head, looking around the Morning Star, and allows his gaze to drift back years.
He says: "I miss it, you know. If we'd stayed together for another five years, we'd have been the best team in Ireland, no bother."
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|Publication:||Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||Feb 5, 2000|
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